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Becoming an Alpine Basket Case — And Loving It!
The sky is a magnificent shade of blue, the air is calm, cold and crisp, and as we float serenely over the Swiss Alps none of the six passengers looking down from our large wicker basket are saying a word. We are all too emotionally carried away by the beauty of mountains, glaciers, valleys, snow and craggy peaks that make up the panorama below us. In the distance our companion balloon seems to glow in the sunlight.
The pilot switches on his communication radio and holds a crackling conversation with his counterparts in the other balloons. Then, turning it off, he flips a valve on the overhead burner. A roaring, whooshing column of flame sends a boost of hot air into the eight-storey-high canopy above us, the heat making us glad that we are all wearing hats.
Near the horizon
we can see some of the highest mountains in Switzerland -Eiger, Monk and Jungfrau
rearing into the sky. In the middle distance, a
glacier glistens, a pristine white sheet between granite crags. I can't help
thinking how fortunate I am to enjoy such a fantastic experience, shared by
only a small number of humans and even fewer eagles.
What are arguably the world's best commercial ballooning
trips are the
brainchild of a remarkable American - Buddy Bombard - who had been a member of three Americas Cup crews before switching to 'three dimensional sailing', as Buddy refers to when talking about piloting balloons. He now organizes balloon trips in Burgundy, Champagne, the Loire, Switzerland, Tuscany, Cappadocia, Prague and Salzburg, as well as arranging special-events ballooning trips for groups to custom destinations such as St Petersburg.
Our balloon adventure starts when we are picked up at the Hotel Richemond in Geneva and are taken, in Buddy's comfortable mini-vans, to the Hotel Le Grand Chalet in Gstaad, which is to be our home for the next few days and from where we will explore the Swiss Alps. The two-hour drive takes us from the Swiss lowlands into the mountains, and then to one of this country's most elegant ski resorts.
Our group is
typical of Bombard's clientele. Buddy caters to some of the
world's most discerning and demanding 'movers and shakers'. They want - and get - much more than just some of the most interesting balloon flights
available. Always the impeccable host, Buddy has invariably made friends with affluent locals who are happy to invite him and his guests to their homes, an experience greatly enjoyed by both parties. In France this might be a local Count and Countess at their private chateau, in Salzburg it is an Austrian Princess at her estate, and in Switzerland it is a remarkable, retired American movie star, but more about that later!
night we will dine at a different, but always excellent, restaurant that
is the haunt of the local glitterati. At the next table you might see Roger
Moore or perhaps Julie Andrews, both of whom have homes nearby. Gstaad is where many of the world's beautiful people go to ski. And one never knows who will be coming around the next corner.
Our hotel is charming and comfortable. After arrival we unpack, rest and go to dinner, in the process getting to know the other people with whom we will spend the next few days. Two out of the four men in our group own twin-engine Citation jets. Clearly this is no back-packer's picnic!
a leisurely breakfast next morning, we pile into the chase-trucks,
vehicles which in reality are beautifully fitted-out mini-vans with trailers
on which our balloons are carefully packed away. Leaving the hotel around
10am we head for the snow-covered field from which we will take off. The
adventure is progressing.
We arrive at the site just in time to see the young, red-shirted ground crews- mainly British students - unpack the balloon baskets, spread the balloon canopies out across the snow and hook up the cables. Today we will be flying in three balloons, each of which will hold a basket containing six passengers, the pilot, and enough liquefied gas to keep us aloft for up to five hours, though we will probably only fly for around three and a half. Buddy takes no risks when it comes to safety.
we watch, a small, gasoline-driven motor springs to life. Fitted to the
front of it is what looks like an airplane propeller. Some of the crew lift
the 'neck' of the balloon, and the pilot, who has activated the motor now
directs the airflow into the body of the balloon.
Slowly the canopy starts to take shape. Now we can see the sky-blue rip-stop nylon begin to billow. More air, and it begins to take a shape reminiscent of a beached whale. The motor continues its staccato rhythm and the pilot moves to the balloon basket that has been placed on its side by the crew and is now hooked to the canopy by steel cables. He flips a valve and lights the balloon's burners. They immediately spring to life with a whooshing roar, the huge flame directed into the now-rising envelope so that it heats the air already in place.
We watch our three balloons gently expand, then slowly
rise into a vertical
position. The propeller is turned off, but the burners keep on roaring. The
baskets have now straightened into position and it's time to climb in. The
semi-circular foot holes in the wickerwork make this possible for those who are past the age of athletes. The crew hand us our cameras and film and then hold on to the base of the basket while the pilot turns the burners to maximum. Ropes that connect the balloon basket to our chase vehicles are undone. The three pilots test their radio gear and communication phones. I also notice that they have satellite navigation systems on board. More hot air. Now we are ready for take-off.
Our balloon is first. Its eight-storey high canopy is
now fully heated and
seems to stretch forever above me. The heat from the burners feels like a
warming, radiating toaster. The radio crackles as our pilot, Mike Lincicome, who has been flying with Buddy for almost two decades, tells the other pilots that he is 'ready to go'. Ever so gently we move up off the snow, rising like a slow elevator. The flight has begun.
Cameras click around me. Nobody
says a word. Everyone is far too busy
enjoying this serendipitous moment. As we float skywards, we see the second balloon begin to ascend. Then the third. And yet there is no feeling of movement. It's an eerie sensation. We are moving at exactly the speed of the light breeze, so there is absolutely no sense of motion. Mike tells us
that if you held a candle, the flame would not even have the slightest
flicker. He goes on to explain that balloons can only drift with the wind.
So, although we can control height to within two or three feet, the direction
is mainly controlled by the choice of the takeoff site, which is matched with
the wind direction. On days when the wind is too strong, flying is not
safely possible. But winter in Switzerland means predominantly cold, stable
air drifting slowly down the valleys - ideal for ballooning. And today is
just such a day.
We begin to move down the Gstaad Valley. Below us Swiss chalets, complete with traditional wooden fretwork balconies, drift past. The burners are switched off and one can practically hear the silence, broken only by the occasional barking of a dog or the sound of a car engine as this moves along the road below.
The Foehn, an unseasonally warm wind, has melted the snow in the previous week and this is now only lying in patches on the surrounding hills. The weak morning sun is now stronger. We fly over the local ice-skating rink. The skaters beneath us look like dots, only their shadows revealing their true shapes. Heavy snow is forecast for next week. It will again cover all of this small ski resort in its white mantle.
switches on the radio and talks to the other pilots. It is time to
climb. Burners roar again. A few seconds later we feel the balloon lifting
and as we look down at the other two balloons we can see large licks of
orange flame also emerging from their burners. Up, up and away. The
mountains are calling!
we rise and look down at the valley, I get the same sensation as when
looking through a zoom lens being turned from close-up to wide-angle.
Houses, cars and fields, farms and forests now take on the proportions of a Lego set, getting smaller and smaller. The horizon expands and we can now see the Alps in all their glory. In the far distance we see two other
balloons. It's an absolutely perfect day.
Mike and the other two pilots could have PhD's in creating serendipity.
changing altitude, the whole ambiance of this balloon flight varies
amazingly. Now a concentrated 'burn' keeps us rising. Higher! Higher yet. As we climb, a dazzling alpine panorama unfolds. Craggy mountains, deep valleys, granite peaks, glaciers and lakes stretch into infinity on one side. And on the other, the Alps continue for a couple of kilometers, until levels drop dramatically down to the Swiss plain. The region here produces excellent cereals, vineyards and the dairy products that this country is famous for. Far in the distance we see yet another mountain range. This, Mike tells us, is already France, and those mountains are home to the French snowfields.
The burners are shut off and we drift in
total silence. Far below us the
shadow of our balloon is now like a tiny speck, moving across a row of
granite peaks. I suddenly remember the lines from a long-forgotten song, 'On a clear day you can see forever!'
The air in our
canopy is now cooling, and we deliberately drift downward.
Mike just occasionally fires the burners for a short time. 'Otherwise we
would descend too fast', he explains. Soon we are right down below the
nearby mountaintops, heading along one of the valleys. We see chalets,
abandoned for the winter, almost buried in snow. A group of mountain
climbers, leaving a trail of footprints behind them, see us and wave. We
rise above a rugged razor-back ridge and one of our passengers points down to the snow. A dozen black chamois mountain-goats prance quickly over a small stretch of snow, make the moss covered granite patch on the other side, and disappear into a copse of pine trees. There is always something new to see.
The radio crackles as Mike contacts the chase crew that have been coming up into the mountains along the nearest road. He gauges our speed and direction, and arranges a rendezvous where our path and the road intersect. Fifteen minutes later we make a perfect touchdown on the snow.
The red-shirted ground-crew now spring into action. Some hold the basket and help us to get out. Others drag ropes from the now-deflating canopy, spreading this across the snow so it can be easily stowed. Yet others are unpacking the icebox containing our lavish gourmet picnic. It's almost like watching a modern corps de ballet.
Lunch starts with the traditional balloonists' toast - champagne.
It is said that Montgolfier, the world's first balloonist who was French and loved
his bubbly, started this tradition, which is still going strong a century on.
Buddy brings his own chef to the Swiss balloon events and the picnics he
prepares are formidable, ranging from stuffed eggs to rare roast beef, and
from great salads to luscious fruit and an abundance of that great Swiss
delicacy - chocolate. Yum!
That evening we have been invited to the home of one of the local residents
in Gstaad, Jane Randolf. At eighty-eight Jane should be a role model for
anyone planning a long and interesting life. In her early years she was a
film star in roles that included being leading lady in Abbot and Costello
movies. Subsequently she married a Spanish industrialist, and when he died, built a charming chalet in Gstaad, to which she still commutes from Florida each year. Jane is a gifted artist, and when we visit her chalet, she is just preparing some of her latest paintings for a local exhibition. While she is showing these to some of the others in our group, Buddy tells us that she still goes skiing. Her instructor is in his seventies and only has four
clients, one of these being another local resident, Roger Moore.
After cocktails here we move on to one of the many excellent
restaurants we experience on this trip. The up-market Gstaad clientele does not
suffer bad chefs lightly. Dinner conversations on these trips are always interesting,
and Buddy invariably has some fascinating stories to contribute. But the
fresh, clear mountain air has worked its magic and it's time for bed.
Tomorrow promises to be another perfect day.
For more information on Buddy Bombard's Ballooning trips, visit his website at www.bombardsociety.com